Pipeline integrity remains a top priority for operators, and with ground-breaking innovations being developed right here in the UK, the industry could be on the cusp of huge change

Pipeline leaks continue to be a serious and worryingly common issue in the oil and gas industry, as highlighted by the temporary closure of TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline earlier this month after a landowner noticed an oil spill. However, even more concerning is that after thorough investigation, it was discovered that 16,800 gallons of oil leaked onto a field rather than the 200 gallons that an initial report suggested.

With hundreds of pipeline construction projects currently in planning around the world there is renewed focus on the importance of monitoring tools. This is particularly important when considering the often remote locations of pipelines and the difficulty security personnel face when tackling leaks in such areas. With pipeline leaks resulting in significant financial and environmental repercussions, operators need to take advantage of the latest, cutting-edge technologies to protect their assets.

What is crucial to understand however, is that in isolation any standalone technology will not deliver a ‘silver bullet’ to the challenge of leak prevention. Instead, it is absolutely essential that any leak detection solution brings numerous tools and technologies together as part of a holistic system.

The UK is a major centre for innovation in monitoring technologies for the for pipeline sector. Technologies, such as our own LivePIPE solution, that give operators real-time visibility of the entire length of a pipeline, are at the forefront of these developments. Technologies like LivePIPE are now giving operators the tools they need to detect and respond to incidents effectively, even in the most remote and difficult to reach sections of a pipeline.

A recent idea from the UK that caught our eye was ‘Buildrone’ – a flying robot designed to repair pipeline leaks. The Buildrone concept consists of a quadrotor drone which has the ability to repair leaks by depositing liquid polyurethane foam on the pipeline. The idea of using a drone to rapidly respond to pipeline leaks and ‘print off’ material that can be used to temporarily repair the leak has huge scope to add to the wider advances in pipeline safety and integrity.

However, by definition, a drone cannot be in multiple places at once, so how can it be directed to potential leaks or areas of concern? Buildrone is the perfect example of a novel technology that needs to be implemented as part of a broader solution to realise its full potential. 

Our LivePIPE system already helps operators to enhance their responses to incidents and threats on pipelines by delivering continuous monitoring of the entire pipeline and pinpointing where incidents are occurring at the earliest opportunity.  Using its Distributed Acoustic Senor (DAS) technology, LivePIPE harnesses multiple acoustic signals from the leak incident, such as the initial rupture and acoustic disturbances around the pipe caused by the leaking product, and distils them into a confident alarm. Having a drone to provide immediate support following an alert is a logical extension of these capabilities. Such a system would ensure that any leak incident, regardless of its physical location, is addressed quickly and accurately and that any resulting damage is minimal.

It is only by thinking about pipeline monitoring technologies as part of a complete system that real step changes in leak detection and prevention will be made. If those sorts of partnerships and integrations can be made, the UK could soon deliver a major transformation in the way pipeline leaks are handled.